Palace of Versailles
You gaze and stare and try to understand that it is real, that it is on the earth, that it is not the Garden of Eden--but your brain grows giddy, stupefied by the world of beauty around you, and you half believe you are the dupe of an exquisite dream.
The scene thrills one like military music! A noble palace of Versailles, stretching its ornamented front, block upon block away, till it seemed that it would never end; a grand promenade before it, whereon the armies of an empire might parade; all about it rainbows of flowers, and colossal statues that were almost numberless and yet seemed only scattered over the ample space; broad flights of stone steps leading down from the promenade to lower grounds of the park--stairways that whole regiments might stand to arms upon and have room to spare; vast fountains whose great bronze effigies discharged rivers of sparkling water into the air and mingled a hundred curving jets together in forms of matchless beauty; wide grass-carpeted avenues that branched hither and thither in every direction and wandered to seemingly interminable distances, walled all the way on either side with compact ranks of leafy trees whose branches met above and formed arches as faultless and as symmetrical as ever were carved in stone; and here and there were glimpses of sylvan lakes with miniature ships glassed in their surfaces.
And every where--on the palace of Versailles steps, and the great promenade, around the fountains, among the trees, and far under the arches of the endless avenues--hundreds and hundreds of people in gay costumes walked or ran or danced, and gave to the fairy picture the life and animation which was all of perfection it could have lacked.
It was worth a pilgrimage to see. Everything is on so gigantic a scale. Nothing is small--nothing is cheap.
The statues are all large; the palace of Versailles is grand; the park covers a fair-sized county; the avenues are interminable.
All the distances and all the dimensions about the palace of Versailles are vast.
I used to think the pictures of the palace of Versailles exaggerated these distances and these dimensions beyond all reason, and that they made the palace of Versailles more beautiful than it was possible for any place in the world to be.
I know now that the pictures never came up to the subject in any respect, and that no painter could represent the palace of Versailles on canvas as beautiful as it is in reality.
I used to abuse Louis XIV for spending two hundred millions of dollars in creating this marvelous park, when bread was so scarce with some of his subjects; but I have forgiven him now.
He took a tract of land sixty miles in circumference and set to work to make this park and build this palace and a road to it from Paris.
He kept 36,000 men employed daily on it, and the labor was so unhealthy that they used to die and be hauled off by cartloads every night.
The wife of a nobleman of the time speaks of this as an "inconvenience," but naively remarks that "it does not seem worthy of attention in the happy state of tranquility we now enjoy."
I always thought ill of people at home who trimmed their shrubbery intopyramids and squares and spires and all manner of unnatural shapes, andwhen I saw the same thing being practiced in this great park I began tofeel dissatisfied.
But I soon saw the idea of the thing and the wisdomof it. They seek the general effect. We distort a dozen sickly treesinto unaccustomed shapes in a little yard no bigger than a dining room,and then surely they look absurd enough.
But here they take two hundredthousand tall forest trees and set them in a double row; allow no sign ofleaf or branch to grow on the trunk lower down than six feet above theground; from that point the boughs begin to project, and very graduallythey extend outward further and further till they meet overhead, and afaultless tunnel of foliage is formed.
The arch is mathematicallyprecise. The effect is then very fine. They make trees take fiftydifferent shapes, and so these quaint effects are infinitely varied andpicturesque.
The trees in no two avenues are shaped alike, andconsequently the eye is not fatigued with anything in the nature ofmonotonous uniformity.
I will drop this subject now, leaving it toothers to determine how these people manage to make endless ranks oflofty forest trees grow to just a certain thickness of trunk (say a footand two-thirds); how they make them spring to precisely the same heightfor miles; how they make them grow so close together; how they compel onehuge limb to spring from the same identical spot on each tree and formthe main sweep of the arch; and how all these things are kept exactly inthe same condition and in the same exquisite shapeliness and symmetrymonth after month and year after year--for I have tried to reason out theproblem and have failed.
We walked through the great hall of sculpture and the one hundred andfifty galleries of paintings in the palace of Versailles, and felt thatto be in such a place was useless unless one had a whole year at hisdisposal.
These pictures are all battle scenes, and only one solitarylittle canvas among them all treats of anything but great Frenchvictories.
We wandered, also, through the Grand Trianon and the PetitTrianon, those monuments of royal prodigality, and with histories somournful--filled, as it is, with souvenirs of Napoleon the First, andthree dead kings and as many queens.
In one sumptuous bed they had allslept in succession, but no one occupies it now.
In a large dining roomstood the table at which Louis XIV and his mistress Madame Maintenon, andafter them Louis XV, and Pompadour, had sat at their meals naked andunattended--for the table stood upon a trapdoor, which descended with itto regions below when it was necessary to replenish its dishes.
In aroom of the Petit Trianon stood the furniture, just as poor MarieAntoinette left it when the mob came and dragged her and the King toParis, never to return.
Near at hand, in the stables, were prodigiouscarriages that showed no color but gold--carriages used by former kingsof France on state occasions, and never used now save when a kingly headis to be crowned or an imperial infant christened. And with them weresome curious sleighs, whose bodies were shaped like lions, swans, tigers,etc.--vehicles that had once been handsome with pictured designs andfine workmanship, but were dusty and decaying now. They had theirhistory.
When Louis XIV had finished the Grand Trianon, he toldMaintenon he had created a Paradise for her, and asked if she could thinkof anything now to wish for. He said he wished the Trianon to beperfection--nothing less.
She said she could think of but one thing--itwas summer, and it was balmy France--yet she would like well to sleighride in the leafy avenues of the palace of Versailles!
The next morning found milesand miles of grassy avenues spread thick with snowy salt and sugar, and aprocession of those quaint sleighs waiting to receive the chief concubineof the gayest and most unprincipled court that France has ever seen!